The word that caused so much trouble for the country band that now wants to be known as Lady A isn’t a problem for the movie “Antebellum,” because the last thing the Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz drama wants to be is a romanticization of the pre-Civil War South.
In fact, it’s pretty much an attack on the antebellum world in the guise of a horror thriller — or, to be more precise, an attack on our world in the guise of a horror thriller about the antebellum world.
That makes the Lionsgate release, which was supposed to have received a theatrical release in April before that was scuttled in favor of a Sept. 18 VOD premiere, an extremely timely film. Within the thriller structure is an exploration of racism in America that manages to incorporate the social justice movement, a Confederate flag, white-nationalist conspiracy and even a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Timeliness, though, is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. For all its currency as a film that delves into central issues of our country at this point in time, “Antebellum” is also an uneasy hybrid, a movie with a touch of “12 Years a Slave,” a bit of “Django Unchained” and a central twist that’s worthy of a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie (and is, in fact, very reminiscent of the twist in a very bad one).
For the film’s lengthy opening stretch, Janelle Monáe plays a young slave named Eden in Louisiana during the Civil War (a time period that technically means the movie is post-antebellum, if you want to be picky). She’s been sent to a “reformer plantation” run by the Confederate army, where slaves are forbidden from even speaking to each other and where the brutality is casual, vicious and depicted in a way that’s disturbing but not restrained.
The movie immerses us in this world for a full 40 minutes, effectively forcing the audience to confront “America’s original sin” even if it doesn’t have the impact of other recent cinematic depictions. But it’s not just about creating that world, anyway — because all of a sudden an alarm rings, Eden wakes up and she’s not Eden at all. Instead, she’s Veronica Henley, the celebrated author of a book about Black female empowerment titled “Shedding the Coping Persona.”
Veronica shakes off her nightmare and gets ready to leave her husband and young daughter for a speaking engagement in Louisiana; for the next half hour, we watch her on the trip making a speech, dealing with casual racism at the hotel and a restaurant and meeting up with friends for dinner. All the while, slightly creepy things are happening around her — but since we’ve already seen the full horror, the vision of a little girl in the hallway who could audition for a remake of “The Shining” if she had a twin doesn’t do much more than kill time before we and Veronica head back to (post-) antebellum times.
But Bush and Renz take their time getting there, lingering both on the details of her business trip and on the quiet residue of racism that surrounds the central character at all times. “Antebellum” has a true three-act structure, but in a way that throws the pacing off; it spends too much time trying to be foreboding when we pretty much know where this is going to end up.
But we don’t know the twist along the way, which both nods to current events and also feels a little ludicrous and opens up some huge questions about that first 40 minutes. (It’s sort of surprising that of all the recent movies that play around with the idea of moving through time, this might be the one that makes you say, “Now wait a minute … ” most strongly.)
Grounding a genre movie in the history of slavery and the resurgence of white nationalism is a dark and dramatic gamble that pulls “Antebellum” out of the horror genre and into social commentary, or at least makes it an intriguing mix of the two. It’s just too bad that the execution isn’t surehanded enough to live up to the ambition.
You can watch the trailer for “Antebellum” below or click here.